dkSez : : : : : : Don Kahle's blog

Quips, queries, and querulous quibbles from the quirky mind of Don Kahle

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Finish the vaccine race with an Oregon kick

May 14th, 2021 by dk

In the endurance race to vaccinate as many Oregonians as possible, Governor Kate Brown has been using a “sit and kick” strategy. We’ve allowed others to keep the lead while we wait for the best opportunity to show that Oregonians finish races better than their peers. We must reach for a higher gear to cross the finish line of herd immunity.

What will the kick look like? It’s easier to describe what it won’t be. It won’t be “steady as she goes.” That won’t get us there. Vaccine skepticism has always had a strong presence in Oregon. When we see a “Question Authority” bumper sticker, we rightly ask “Says who?” Only Oregonians question the authority questioners.

This vaccine effort could become completely worthless if we don’t reach herd immunity as fast as possible. It’s the only effective endgame against this virus and it’s looking like we may not get there. If this wily virus mutates to overcome our vaccines, we’ll have to rerun this race with no recovery time in between. We don’t want to do that.

We cannot settle for “heard immunity” — “I heard something that makes me feel better, so I’m going with that instead of getting a vaccination shot.” We have an opportunity here to show the nation and the world that Oregonians know how to finish a race. Here’s what that extra gear might look like.

Stop talking to vaccine skeptics as citizens. Those who choose and act on behalf of the common good have already gotten their shots. That ship has sailed. Address them as shrewd consumers. Sad but true, this is the only path to empowerment that many Americans perceive. Let them consider themselves “smart shoppers.”

What does a consumer-oriented pitch look like for this next phase of vaccinations? West Virginia and Maryland are experimenting with hard cash. That’s a bad idea for two reasons. First, it heightens concerns that the vaccine must be a trick. Second, this won’t be the last time we need people to get a shot to keep everyone safe from a disease.

Soften the contours of the deal. Make it less starkly transactional. Add a social element to wean them off the addictive individualism. Give them game tickets. Meet them at their favorite bar. Dangle a bigger prize that represents our pooled interests and benefits.

New Yorkers can parlay vaccination for free tickets to a Yankees or Mets game. Erie County in western New York launched an innovative “shot and chaser” program. They set up inside a local brewery. Free beer garnered more shots over the weekend than all the other clinics in that county combined.

We know what motivates Americans. We only need to do it.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown could partner with sports teams and brew pubs tomorrow. Declare a daily $1000 drawing for a lucky vaxxer. Up the ante to $10,000 daily if Oregon’s vaccination rate passes all other states or reaches 85 percent of our population. We can lead the way. Others will follow.

Let’s finish this race on our own terms. Everyone should see that Oregon knows how to kick.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Biden continues our media literacy lesson

May 13th, 2021 by dk

Four months into this new administration, I’m most impressed by what Joe Biden hasn’t done as president. Namely, he hasn’t taken the bait — over and over. Donald Trump gave us a 5-year master class on how to manipulate the media. His sleight hands couldn’t hide his moves. Now Biden is showing how to not be manipulated by the media.

For much too long, earnest Democrats could not resist rebutting every whopper told by the opposition. Every record must be set straight. In doing so, they invariably repeat the untruths, which give it a wider audience and more credence. Biden won’t play along.

The president’s bully pulpit has changed. Legislators are no longer cowed by voters contacting their offices. They’ve trained their interns to handle such things. The bully pulpit has been replaced with the media megaphone. Whatever the president says today will be on the news tonight.

Message discipline has never been more important and Biden is giving us his own master class. He completely ignores silly stories that others make up about him. Is he a partisan hack, a senile stooge, or the hamburglar-in-chief? The president has nothing to say about these items. Next question?

He watched President Obama flail against the birther imbroglio. The answers only amplified the questions. Any concern addressed from within the White House has been legitimized in the minds of many. Obama learned this lesson too late.

A related lesson: reporters are not always seeking the truth. In today’s hyper-competitive media landscape, they want to generate headlines. The questions are not always fair. What is the correct answer to the question, “Are you still beating your wife?”

You cannot answer “Yes” or “No.” You must reframe the question to your advantage: “I beat my wife at chess, and she beats me at Scrabble and just about everything else. After 25 years of happy marriage, I’ve learned to lose graciously, thanks to all that practice.” Checkmate.

These strategy maneuvers feel like a board game, but with hearts and minds at stake. 

When reporters revealed that almost every endorsement for candidate Trump came from websites built to look like legitimate news sites, they labeled them “fake news.” Trump retaliated by slapping the “fake news” label on any negative press coverage. It worked because he had the media megaphone of the White House.

Now we talk about “the Big Lie” — the claim that rampant voter fraud swung the 2020 election to Biden. Trump’s response? His non-Twitter tweet: “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 … will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!”

You see how this works? If Trump can cause confusion about which “big lie” is which, he can keep people from entertaining any new thoughts. When people become confused, they tend to retain their prior preferences.

Biden cannot bring clarity to intentional confusion so he doesn’t try. He has the megaphone now and he’s using it only to display his determination to better Americans’ daily lives. He invites judgment based on his performance, not on how convincingly he parries every accusation hurled his way.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Inflation will help the rich

May 9th, 2021 by dk

I wonder if our national political conversation is wandering into a surprising sort of economic stasis. Lefty advocates for social justice are calling for massive new government spending. They would fund this expansion by taxing the rich and corporations or by deficit spending. The national debt is already at heights not seen since WWII.

Corporate America so far has been unfazed. The stock market in particular doesn’t seem bothered by proposals to increase capital gains and estate tax rates. The market is up more than 10 percent since the first of the year, and April was its best month yet in 2021.

It would be as lovely as it is unlikely that the One-Percenters were taking this leftward trend in stride, admitting to the rest of America that they have done obscenely well in recent years. Lovely but unlikely. So what explains this particular dog not barking?

The government is pouring money into Americans’ pockets. Direct stimulus checks have been sent. Monthly checks for young families are on their way. Increased subsidies for health care, child care, elder care, infrastructure repair, and Internet access have all been promised.

Pumping trillions into the economy so quickly brings one large risk. Inflation could awaken from its generational slumber. Consumer prices have been relatively stable since Jimmy Carter left the White House. Those who lived through double-digit inflation in the 1970s have forgotten how bad it was.

We bought things that we didn’t need because they would be more expensive later. Our paychecks got fatter but the money didn’t go further. It felt like we were running up an escalator heading down. Sustained efforts barely kept consumers even. Rental rates rose. Mortgages were expensive. Sticker shock was a way of life.

Who benefits most when the inflation dragon starts breathing fire under our feet? Those whose income doesn’t rely on their wages. The asset class sees their net worth grow while inflation shrinks the buying power of the working class. Stocks and equity become more valuable. They also become less attainable for those without them.

Interest rates rise when inflation returns. Banks pay higher interest to depositors who have and mortgages cost more for those who have not. The rich get richer and the poor get more numerous.

Our economic system has extended a new sop to the working class since 1980. Retirement funds and IRAs have invested heavily in stock market equities. Workers are now promised a slice of the equity pie, but it’s more like a few crumbs per person from the incredible wealth being created.

Say you get a whopping 10 percent raise at your job. How likely will your boss give you the same raise again next year and the year after that? Meanwhile, your landlord can increase your rent substantially, year after year. Wage increases don’t accrue easily. Asset values do.

Consumer spending reductions may be continuous, but asset appreciation compounds. Once inflation is added to our calculations, closing the wage gap may actually widen the wealth gap. Addressing this possible future inequity will require some bold new thinking.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Biden Seeks to Remedy Reagan

May 7th, 2021 by dk

Hours after President Joe Biden laid out his vision for a muscular federal government to a joint session of Congress, where did he and his wife go? They went where no sitting president has gone in 40 years. They made an Air Force One pilgrimage to Plains, Georgia to visit 96-year-old Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. The timing was not accidental.

Much ink has been spilled over the past 100 days about whose presidency Biden’s most resembles. FDR and LBJ are the initials offered most frequently. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Biden doesn’t think of it this way. He has somehow learned that it’s not really about him. He’s more interested in us. Magnanimity is Biden’s secret superpower.

Biden understands that he and Carter were swept into office by a country needing to shake the stink of the previous administration. (Nixon’s scandals may yet be diminished by Trump’s. History spools slowly.) When the country is reeling, Americans look for a reliable character with a magnetic smile to brighten the evening news.

Jimmy Carter was the last steward of a muscular federal government. He mostly failed at the job because he couldn’t navigate the crosswinds that blow through Washington. (Who knows how Obama would have done without Biden at his side?)

Biden was already a United States senator when Carter was elected in 1976. It was the first presidency he watched develop from a Capitol Hill perch. It was the first time Biden had both proximity to the White House and a premonition that never left him: “Someday, that will be me.”

We all know what happened next. Carter was judged a failure in his presidency and badly botched his campaign for reelection. Ronald Reagan won in a landslide and ushered in a generation of skepticism about the federal government’s role and reach in people’s lives.

Forty years later, the small-government fever appears to have finally broken. People have witnessed, sometimes with heartbreaking clarity, that certain tasks are best handled by the government. Which is to say, as Biden often does, best handled by all of us, together.

Biden wants to put us on a path that Carter saw but couldn’t realize. Both men are deeply animated by their faith, which may be the only cure for the sycophancy that grows like an invisible oval around them. (It looks like a halo only to those inside it.)

Our place in the world must promote peace. President Carter’s military never fired a shot. That accomplishment has not been repeated since.

We lead best when we lead by example. Addressing climate change will be harder today than it was in 1980. Don’t be surprised if solar panels return the roof of the White House.

Biden doesn’t want to repeat his predecessors’ successes. He feels called to correct mistakes exposed by history. He’s not a repeat of Roosevelt. He’s the remedy to Reagan.

Can Biden revive government’s reputation in the minds and lives of average Americans? It will be a heavy lift, but he visited last week with the only other living American who ever really tried.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Scribbled Notes on the Margins of Life

April 30th, 2021 by dk

Fifth Friday footnotes, follow-ups and far-flung fripperies:

  • You know you’re a true Oregonian if you’ve complained about our lack of spring rains.
  • I got my pfirst vaccine shot the other day. I pfeel pfine. Nothing pfunny happened.
  • I see soaped COVID-19 vaccination release times scrawled on people’s driver rear window as 2021’s first flesh-and-blood meme — the new “Baby on Board.”
  • Takeaway from the Chauvin trial: “If you see something, film something.” (Who believes the outcome didn’t rely on Darnella Frazier’s video?)
  • Pictures have changed racial politics before. Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral in 1955. She allowed Jet Magazine to publish photographs that shocked the nation and inspired a young pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr..
  • Masks have become bumper stickers for the face. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
  • How come we never hear about those who get out scathed?
  • How did “cat litter” come to mean two such very different things? (Both involving cats, at least.)
  • If the whole world was comprised of only one of these, would you prefer beginnings, middles, or endings?
  • Why isn’t Indian cuisine more colorful?
  • I don’t use the sprayer nozzle on my kitchen faucet nearly enough.
  • Shame-based self-correction is a little like corporate sensitivity training. It works best on those who don’t really need it.
  • Time is not our most limited commodity. Intention is. Any moment when we’re fully aligned with our intent stretches across dimensions.
  • Military officials should not be allowed to wear their medals inside the Oval Office. They must be reminded that somebody outranks them.
  • Government employees play defense so much better than they play offense. How can we change that?
  • Bureaucrats live in the rule world. The rest of us live in the real world. Having a plan in place sounds great, but “a plan in place” is no substitute for a plan in motion.
  • Statistics don’t guide us well toward us asymmetrical outcomes.
  • When I’m strong, I don’t need anyone. When I’m weak, I don’t deserve anyone.
  • Websites should also answer Frequently Unasked Questions, despite the unfortunate acronym.
  • Remember when subdivision sidewalks were not adjacent to the street? Homeowners were responsible for lawn on both sides of the walk. That was a better world.
  • Nothing is forever, right? We do what we can to hold off that day when nothing meets forever.
  • If Congress fails to pass Biden’s infrastructure bill, will it prove that American politics has gotten too big for its bridges?
  • Let’s make sure earmarks don’t become eyesores.
  • Why does the word “why” start with two silent letters?
  • Who is working on the gender-neutral term to replace “man-to-man defense”?
  • Where fear and sadness meet, do not yield to fear.
  • On a scale of 1-10, how much do you like numeric scale surveys?
  • I’m not a majoritarian. Whatever relies on “most people” is often wrong and sometimes dangerous.
  • The only alternative to theology is bad theology.
  • I hope somebody upriver is making artful commentary about pale blue dots on charred trees.
  • I am a man of my word(s).


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at


  • Is somebody working on reinventing bar bet questions in the age of Google?
  • History becomes more interesting as we become part of it.
  • I’m glad we’ve returned to precedented times, navigating charted waters ahead.
  • If you know whether it’s a recycling pick-up week without following your neighbors, you don’t have enough going on in your life.
  • We understand so little about what actually empowers people. We’re not even all that curious about it, which should be alarming. (Partly, we think we already know. Partly, we think knowing wouldn’t matter. I’m not sure which part is more dangerous.)
  • Why can’t bitcoin mining be directed toward accomplishing some sort of social good, instead of completing abstract calculations?
  • I wanted to be right. Instead, I was left … three times.
  • Wind Chill Factor (and its younger sibling, Temperature Humidity Index) ruined Amurika. “How it feels” became more important than “What it is.”
  • Related: We disrespect our nation’s most notable leaders when we insist their actual birthday is less important than our 3-day weekend plans.
  • In my perfect world, I would leave my front door and head right or left in equal measure. I’d rather be in the middle of things than at one end.
  • Nothing generates more Facebook comments than any random observation about Chicago-style deep dish pizza.
  • Did every mom hector their children to clean behind their ears or was that a 1950s and/or Midwestern thing? (I’d really like to know.)

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We must become curiouser and curiouser

April 23rd, 2021 by dk

You’ve probably always been considered one of the smarter ones in a room. Me too. (I’m talking here to newspaper readers. Sorry, Facebook followers.) We read a lot. We remember enough of what we read to bring what we’ve learned to conversation.

We grew up in a world that rewarded memory, resourcefulness, and analytic skill. If you never spent hours in a library, combing through the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, you were born too late to understand our dilemma. (Google it.)

We trained ourselves to be well informed across a wide range of topics, or the imposing expert on a narrow set of problems. In either instance, people paid us attention and respect if we could articulate the best answers. In the top-down model of informational power, we’re known to pollsters as “opinion leaders.”

For most of us, it’s worked out pretty well. We got hired to do rewarding work. We influenced decisions made by others. We got into good schools. We attended interesting parties. We earned respect. We made something of ourselves, in a world where “ourselves” was something that somehow required “making.”

If that doesn’t sound absurd — maybe even dangerously absurd — this column is a warning for you. The world has shifted under our feet in ways that are as profound as they are unnoticed.

The emerging world will no longer reward us for good answers. The supercomputers in our pockets have access to more memory and expertise than any of us. We’re in another John Henry moment. Machines outperform us. Siri or Alexa or Hey-Google are waiting to answer any questions people may have.

My point here is a hopeful one. Our place atop the information hierarchy is only threatened if we don’t adapt. We made the rules. We can change them. But we’ll have to move quickly. Changes are accelerating. Answers have become alarmingly easy to obtain, but they require something first from us. They need good questions.

Certitude is less valuable now than curiosity. Memory is handy, but empathy is essential.  Finding things out has never been easier, but only for those who know exactly what they don’t know. Facts can be gathered and stored with inhuman efficiency, but a warehouse of data itself has no life. A questioning human still animates it.

Only good questions can put all those answers to good use. A professor in grad school gave us this warning: “Whenever you cannot find any good answers, consider whether you might be asking a bad question.”

So what makes a good question? That depends on the context. If you’re undertaking an experiment or building an argument, your question must taper the possibilities. That’s slightly misleading, because most of us don’t argue or experiment much.

Our questions usually occur in conversation. Any good answer will prompt more questions. And then there’s no telling what might be revealed! You may even exit the inquiry more curious than when you entered — a worthy goal. If getting invited to interesting parties still matters to you, curiosity is how you’ll make those parties more interesting because you’re there.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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DeFazio’s moment has been a long time coming

April 22nd, 2021 by dk

A decade ago I joined a handful of architects and design professionals every year for an annual pilgrimage to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The goal was always to meet with Oregon’s elected officials and to highlight upcoming legislative priorities for their industry.

I remember one year — maybe 2009 — sitting on Rep. Peter DeFazio’s office couch. We were making the case for expanding broadband access to more residences and offices as a way to reduce our collective carbon footprint.

DeFazio’s most powerful perch at the time was Chair of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, which doesn’t have anything to do with faster wi-fi.

I suggested from that leather sofa that more telecommuting could reduce road wear, extending their longevity. “Could you take some funding from construction and maintenance and dedicate it to broadband subsidies? Like how power companies offer incentives for customers to insulate their homes so they use less energy?”

There was an uncharacteristic pause. DeFazio glanced to his aide, “Can we do that?”

The aide replied, “I don’t think so. But I’ll check.” She scribbled some notes on a yellow legal pad, and the meeting continued.

Meetings with members of Congress always end with a group photo to memorialize the moment. Weather permitting, DeFazio likes to step out onto his balcony, where photos can feature the Capitol dome prominently in the background.

“I’ve been here for so long that I could have just about any office in this complex,” he told me as phones were shuttled to a staffer for photos, “but I never tire of this view, so I keep this office — and this balcony.”

Most perks in the House of Representatives are determined by seniority. DeFazio outranks all but five of his colleagues. He came to Congress before Nancy Pelosi. He’s kept his seat longer than any other member of Oregon’s delegation, ever. And now he’s finally Chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It’s been a long time coming.

He and his staff will work harder this spring than they ever have. They will be crafting the legislative language for President Joe Biden’s $2 billion infrastructure bill. The sprawling initiative will not be limited to roads and bridges. It will include many other overdue improvements to America’s infrastructure, broadly defined. And yes, it will include substantial upgrades for Internet access, especially in rural areas.

What the bill probably won’t include is any increase in gas taxes. The federal gas tax has been stuck at 18.4 cents since drivers could find a gallon for less than a buck. If the tax had been indexed to inflation in 1993, today it would be 33.7 cents per gallon.

DeFazio hopes to use his power and position to make lasting changes across America. His portion of Biden’s American Jobs Plan should index gas taxes to inflation going forward and rescind gas stations’ unique allowance to add nine-tenths of a penny to their product’s price. A fractional penny made sense when a gallon of gas was a quarter. It costs ten times that now, so tenths of pennies should no longer be necessary.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Democrats must move fast

April 22nd, 2021 by dk

Democrats in Washington don’t have much time. They were not swept into power in 2020. It was more like they found the door ajar and walked in. Although Biden’s popular victory was resounding, he could have lost the Electoral College if less than 75,000 votes had switched. Democrats lost seats in the House and regained the Senate mostly because the GOP was wallowing in President Trump’s loss.

Republicans did even better downballot. They enlarged their control of state legislatures and the vital decennial redistricting battles. Gerrymandered districts and voting rights restrictions will probably expand Republicans’ minority rule of the nation. Nobody expects any relief from the federal courts, newly stocked with conservative ideologues.

If history is any guide, Democrats will lose control of both houses of Congress in 2022. Voters consistently punish the President’s party during midterm elections. President Biden will be stonewalled by Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy less than two years from now, unless something changes quickly. But what?

Democrats should avoid any changes that can be easily undone or repaid doubly by resurgent Republicans. That will only make things worse. It already has. Limiting the filibuster and recess appointments only invited a backlash that Democrats should have seen coming. Don’t monkey with the Supreme Court, because Republicans will retaliate.

Unfortunately for Democrats, most of their successful changes — those which have proven durable — involve governing and not electioneering. Obamacare is the most recent example of a government policy change that has withstood challenges from its detractors. But health care hasn’t helped Democrats win elections against headwinds.

Here are three initiatives that would be difficult for Republicans to counteract: an improved filibuster, national voting protections, and a new flag.

Start with the filibuster. Three professors have proposed replacing the Senate’s present 60-vote supermajority with a double-majority. Kenneth Shepsle, Matthew Stephenson, and Jonathan Gould argue that small state Senators have gained an unfair advantage that must be corrected.

Their plan would keep a high bar to end debate in the Senate, but the requirement would reflect the nation’s population. Ending debate would require a majority of Senators and enough Senators to represent a majority of the American population. (Each Senator would represent half of their state’s population.) It’s time to acknowledge that California has 68 times as many citizens as Wyoming.

This new standard would not weaken the filibuster. It would improve it, preserving the Senate’s unique character. Importantly, Republicans could not easily reverse it. Most populous states have trended Democratic for decades.

The second systemic change relies on the first. For The People Act of 2021 won’t attract enough Republicans to achieve a 60-vote end to a filibuster and it cannot be passed as a budget reconciliation. We can hope that recalcitrant Democratic Senators might favor an “improved” filibuster to bring this package to a floor vote.

The third initiative that deserves Democrats’ immediate attention is statehood for Washington, DC and Puerto Rico, giving Democrats more Senate votes. Republicans will find it easier to take voters’ health care away than to remove a couple of new stars from the American flag.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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Vaccine locks your garage

April 15th, 2021 by dk

For several months, all Oregonians have faced three questions regarding the COVID-19 vaccine. Can I get it? Should I get it? Will I get it? Since the answer was “no” to the first question, many of us ignored the second two. That is about to change.

Beginning Monday, April 19, all Oregon adults will be able to schedule their vaccine shots. It’s time to answer the last two questions. Clinics, pharmacies, hospitals, and special sites have perfected the “Fauci ouchie” choreography. You can schedule an appointment quickly. The shot takes minutes. You’ll marvel at the efficiency.

Since we’re marveling, stand amazed at what scientists have accomplished.  They developed multiple vaccines in less than a year. As of Monday, 120.8 million Americans have received at least one dose. The number of fatalities related to vaccinations is stunning: one. (Six women have encountered blood clot complications from the Johnson & Johnson shot, out of 7 million J&J doses administered. J&J shots are currently unavailable until more is known.)

Being fully vaccinated doesn’t repel the virus. It could still get inside you, but it won’t multiply enough to make you sick. Masks will remain necessary until we reach herd immunity. That could take a while.

Some people are planning a wait-and-see approach, as if 120 million successful “test cases” hasn’t proven efficacy or safety. Some just don’t like the idea of being poked with anything sharp. Others fear there’s a conspiracy embedded in this campaign. (For what it’s worth, vaccinated friends report that it hasn’t improved their 5G reception and no payments from George Soros have arrived.)

You might think that you’re young, fit and hale — not the sort of person this coronavirus prefers killing. But that’s not a reason to skip the shot. It’s evidence that you need to better understand how the virus works. Maybe a simile will help.

This virus is like a souped up Tesla with dangerous and annoying capabilities. It has a universal remote can open any garage door, unless the garage door’s circuitry has been upgraded. The Tesla moves into unprotected garages for two purposes. It needs to hook into power to keep going. It also wants to use the stored tools to tinker with its own gadgetry. It also sometimes burns down the garage before driving away.

It’s the self-tinkering that should worry us most. All viruses mutate as they multiply inside a host body, but COVID-19 has demonstrated a knack for spawning variants that are more deadly. (Some see this pattern as evidence that it originated in a lab and not in an exotic meat market. Such concerns don’t alter the imperatives at hand.)

Could this Tesla upgrade its remote to regain access to locked garages? Only while inside an unprotected garage. That garage could be you, if you don’t get the shot. Getting vaccinated locks your garage. We must deny this Tesla space to recharge and soup itself up in dangerous new ways. If enough garages become inaccessible, it’ll eventually stall on the side of the road, stranded and harmless. That’s the goal.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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How the other filibuster ended

April 11th, 2021 by dk

Much ink has been spilled over the last few months about whether Democrats might bring to an end the Senate’s filibuster tradition. Keep in mind that it is nothing more than a tradition. Filibusters are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. 

It’s true that our founding fathers wanted to avoid the tyranny of the majority, but they rested in the belief that competing ambitions and general bonhomie would suffice. They never dreamed that a minority of lawmakers would consider halting all government business and declaring themselves satisfied.

What might happen if the majority gains the power to assert its will without active participation from the minority? Recall George Santayana’s warning, slightly revised: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to reading about it in one of Kahle’s columns.”

In the decades after the Civil War, the House of Representatives had an obstruction strategy employed by the minority that will seem all too familiar to Oregonians. They called it a filibuster, and it was a Republican who put a stop to it.

The practice at the time was to begin each session with a courtesy measure that doubled as a roll call. Unfortunately, the precursor to Microsoft Excel used since the first Congress had only two input options — yes or no. There was no way to vote “present.” Those who refused to answer were effectively marked absent, even if they were standing beside the clerk.

Once tallied, if the official ledger showed too few recorded responses to constitute a quorum, business was adjourned. It was no different from how Oregon legislators in the minority have obstructed lawmaking in Salem several times over the past few years. No different except that olden lawmakers marked themselves absent but didn’t bother staying away.

House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed, a Republican from Portland, Maine, ended the practice in January, 1890. Reed was a master parliamentarian, similar to Mitch McConnell today. When his party was in the minority, he led the obstruction by refusing to have his presence recorded.

When Republicans surged into the majority and he became Speaker, he knew just what to do. Reed instructed the House clerk to count and record whoever was present. This must have involved inputting calligraphied comments in the spreadsheet cell notes until quill feathers jammed the keyboard.

As recounted by David Litt in The Atlantic last month, Kentucky’s James McCreary protested, “I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me as present.” Reed’s response: “The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present. Does he deny it?”

Democrats then tried to hide under their desks or leave the chamber. Three days of parliamentary maneuvering ensued. Tactics included locking the chamber doors from the outside (this is true) and probably (just guessing here) jamming cell phone reception and suspending members’ UberEats delivery accounts. The House of Representatives lost its filibuster 131 years ago and no one remembers they ever had one.

Will legislative leaders in Salem lock the chamber doors to keep the minority present, ending their de facto filibuster? Probably not, but it wouldn’t be the first time.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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